Rewiring the Way We Look at DeathA couple of months ago, the New York Times Styles section profiled Amy Cunningham, a magazine writer and blogger who surprised all her friends—myself included—when she abruptly shifted gears in her mid-50s to enroll at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service.

Now a licensed funeral director, she specializes in eco-friendly burials and do-it-yourself, spiritually attuned ceremonies for people who feel ill-served by conventional funereal offerings. “I identify myself,” she told the Times, “as a Kundalini-yoga-practicing Buddhist Presbyterian on the board of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue.”

Like the latest artisanal pickle, it is all just so, well, Brooklyn. A cynic like me couldn’t help but wonder what her real angle is. But the thing is, I know Amy, and while she might be “Brooklyn,” she is emphatically not on the make. She regards her new career very much as a calling. But if I didn’t doubt her sincerity for a moment, I can’t say I really understood what was driving her.

If the emphasis of traditional funerals was on holding the forces of nature at bay and keeping the body intact, green funerals acknowledge and celebrate its return to the earth.

So when Rewire Me asked if I would be interested in writing about her quest to “rewire death,” I jumped at the opportunity. I arranged to meet her in a fitting location: outside the crematorium in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood cemetery, just a few blocks away from Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, where she works. Greenwood cemetery occupies 478 improbably lush acres between Park Slope and Sunset Park. With its steep hills, winding roads, and Gothic and Neo-classical monuments, it made me feel as though I’d walked into a landscape painting by Claude Lorrain.

Greenwood’s crematorium is filled with marble, fountains, and flowers, and its walls are lined with niches for urns. The facility handles more than 2,600 bodies a year, the manager told us, up from about 900 when he started at Greenwood 20 years ago—which was more than double the demand when it was built in the 1950s. (Greenwood’s first grave was dug all the way back in 1838.) Some of this he attributed to changing demographics (many of Greenwood’s clients are now Chinese). Attitudes have changed too. The Pope approved cremation for Catholics in 1963, provided the ashes aren’t scattered. And then there are the economics. Land is at a premium in Brooklyn, and a full-size grave takes up real estate. The cost of a traditional burial, he explained, has become prohibitively expensive for many families. More families than you might think, Amy told me, hold their funeral services in one of the crematorium’s two chapels—and some even watch from a glassed-in viewing area as their loved one’s body is gently guided into the ovens.

Later, as we strolled through the memorial gardens outside, I asked her how she’d come to make this change in her life.

As fiercely as Amy had mourned her 94-year-old father, she told me, preparing his funeral had been so satisfying for her, on so many levels, that she realized it was something she wanted to keep doing for other people. If the emphasis of traditional funerals was on holding the forces of nature at bay and keeping the body intact, green funerals acknowledge and celebrate its return to the earth. Like the service that Amy and her siblings created for her father, the ones she prepares with her clients aren’t templated—they reflect and acknowledge the individuality of both the deceased and the bereaved.

“But what do you get out of it?” I pressed her. “When you went to funeral school, you didn’t study ceremonies or ideas. You learned about bodies.”

“I don’t know that I believe in souls per se,” she said, “but I can easily imagine that dead people’s spirits stay among us for a while. Some traditions hold that their spirits are disoriented in the first days after death; they linger near their bodies. They need to know that they’re being taken care of, so they can go on their way. Everyone—the mourners and the dead themselves—need to get used to the idea of death. That’s the wisdom behind Irish wakes.”

“What people like me in the Green Burial movement are doing—and it’s not just me, it’s a movement—is a lot like the natural birth movement in the ’70s, only it happens at the other end of the continuum. Natural funerals, like natural births, are about accepting and celebrating life.”

She showed me a niche in a columbarium where a young mother’s ashes were interred. “She left small children,” Amy said. “It was very hard.” The top of the niche opened, she explained, so her children could leave letters for their mother.

“Do you know Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town?” she asked me later, as we sat on a bench outside a chapel where a service had just ended. As a group of mourners streamed past us, blinking in the sunlight, she pulled a photocopied page out of her bag. “I copied this for you,” she said. It was a passage from the Stage Manager’s monologue:

Y’know, the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they let go their hold of the earth—the ambitions they had—and the pleasures they had—and the things they suffered—and the people they loved. They get weaned away from the earth.

“Home vigils can be very powerful and comforting,” she said. “Especially when it’s a child. This isn’t something that all families are able to do, needless to say, but we’ve done it very successfully for some. You lay the body on dry ice, you keep the air conditioner up very high, and you live with it for a while. The family doesn’t have to let go so quickly—but when they see the body changing after a couple of days, they realize that it’s time.

“Mark Twain wrote so movingly about visiting his daughter’s body while she was lying in state in his house,” she continued. “The quality of his grief changed and deepened each time he saw her.”

I looked up the passage when I got home. “I have been looking at that face again,” Twain wrote about his daughter. “Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for strength to withhold the word. And I would have the strength; I am sure of it. In her loss I am almost bankrupt, and my life is a bitterness, but I am content: for she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts—that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor—death.”

Amy had a client coming in to finalize the preparations for his father’s funeral, so we walked out of the cemetery together. “Funerals and the funeral industry are designed to sanitize and commodify death, to professionalize it,” I said. “Someone else comes in and deals with the mess and the misery; they whisk the body away. What you’re doing—involving the family in it, offering them natural alternatives to traditional burials that are not just greener but cheaper—doesn’t that undermine the business model? Don’t the people you work with see you as a threat?”

“They know that times are changing,” she said. “They see me as a bridge. What people like me in the Green Burial movement are doing—and it’s not just me, it’s a movement—is a lot like the natural birth movement in the ’70s, only it happens at the other end of the continuum. Natural funerals, like natural births, are about accepting and celebrating life.”

She left me with one last page—a copy of a poem called “Visiting the Graveyard” by Mary Oliver. It was about listening to the voices of the dead as they talk to each other:

            It’s in an unknowable language—

            I can catch the tone

            But understand not a single word.

For more information about eco-friendly burials and spiritually attuned ceremonies, visit Amy Cunningham’s blog, The Inspired Funeral: Creative Ways to Approach the Inevitable.

Explore More

1 Comment

  • Lisa
    Posted July 10, 2014 12:15 pm 0Likes

    GREAT article! Change is indeed upon us, and with a heightened awareness of the need for green burial options. BioUrn offers an affordable green burial option for today’s earth conscious consumers who want to reduce their carbon footprint. BioUrn is a handmade cloth cremation urn, that holds the entirety of a beloved’s cremated remains along with the seed of a tree, chosen from a wide variety offered on our website. The BioUrn kit comes with everything needed including a cotton cremation bag, soil and marker. Once all components are placed into the BioUrn, and buried, the seed will germinate and your loved one’s memorial tree will begin to grow. Visit our website and ask yourself, “when i die, what tree will I be?” http://www.myeternalfamilytree.com

Leave a comment

Social

Subscribe to Our Newsletter